All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
“One day the Singularity would elevate humans to cybernetic superbeings, and maybe then people would say what they meant.
“Probably not, though.”
All The Birds In The Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders is a wondrous coming of age tale about a witch and a mad scientist, separated childhood friends who find themselves drawn to each other again as adults, just as they are about to be drawn into an apocalyptic battle between the forces of magic and science on opposite sides. From this quirky premise, Anders has managed to craft a staggeringly imaginative story that seamlessly mixes elements of fantasy and science fiction. In the book’s sheer sugar-rush of ideas, it takes on the technological Singularity and the end of the world, schools for witches and wizards and a secret society of assassins, our relationship with technology and our relationship with the natural world.
All The Birds In The Sky is stopped from spinning off in all directions at once by its focus on its two central characters, who are both instantly engaging and sympathetic whilst being all too humanly flawed, and by Anders’ narrative voice, charming, witty and urbane. Like a modern day Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams, she has a knack for making humourous and absurdist observations, then pulling universal human truths from them.
The beating heart of the novel is its two main characters, Patricia and Laurence. Patricia is a girl who loves playing in the woods, and one day, after discovering that she can talk to birds, is taken to meet the Parliament of Birds and the great talking tree they live in, where she is told she is a witch and is given a riddle to answer. Laurence is a boy who is building a supercomputer in the closet in his bedroom, makes his own two-second time machine from schematics on the internet, and runs away from home to watch a rocket launch. Both are outsiders, alienated from their parents by their respective passions and bullied and ostracised by the other kids at school, so even as Patricia is drawn into the world of magic and Laurence into the world of science they find themselves becoming firm friends as they are the only ones who understand each other.
Years later they meet again as adults, when Patricia has graduated from Eltisley Maze, a secret school for witches and wizards, and is practising healing magic, and Laurence is a science prodigy working on an engineering project that he hopes will save the world. As climate change and pollution bring the world closer and closer to destruction, Patricia’s and the magicians’ attempts to heal the world are brought into conflict with Laurence and his fellow scientists’ efforts to build a future for humanity through technology, even as Patricia and Laurence find themselves drawn to each other again.
The central romance works because both Laurence and Patricia are well-rounded characters. Anders does a good job of keeping both of them sympathetic whilst giving them realistic and believable character flaws. Patricia and Laurence are so instantly relatable because Anders nails what it’s like to grow up as a weirdo, and just how ghastly school can be when you have no friends. The sections about Laurence and Patricia’s childhoods manage to combine the excitement of discovering a wider world, as magic and science open up their perspectives and their opportunities, with the horror of having no agency over your own fate whilst people who don’t understand you make decisions about your future.
These sections are both heightened and leavened by the presence of Theodolphus Rose, a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins who has had a vision of the future and the destructive role both Patricia and Laurence will play, and who poses as the school guidance teacher so that he can get close to them and ruin their lives. The character, who despite his bizarre paranoia and unorthodox assassin rituals winds up becoming quite an effective and well-loved guidance teacher, is frequently a source of absurdist comic relief, whilst at the same time manipulating the school and Patricia and Laurence’s parents to get both children expelled, removed from the influences of science and magic and separated. Simultaneously comically ridiculous, genuinely threatening and surprisingly sympathetic, Theodolphus Rose provides a perfect example of how Anders is successfully able to juggle and integrate disparate elements and tones into a satisfying coherent whole. It’s the sort of thing that really shouldn’t work but somehow does, and with aplomb.
When we are reintroduced to Patricia and Laurence as adults, they are older, trying to move on from their childhood traumas and to make meaningful lives for themselves in the real world. However, despite living out their childhood dreams in terms of their occupations, the book makes it amply clear that they still have their issues to deal with. Laurence, despite being recongised as a genius in his field, is still dealing with his insecurities, as demonstrated by his relationship with Serafina, a robotics expert that he sabotages through his own actions. The book expertly deconstructs his flashy media coups, his utter lack of concern for the non-human inhabitants of the planet and his mansplaining of Serafina’s job to her face as the products of self-centred male privilege.
Patricia has become a powerful witch who uses her power to help those in need, yet she is dealing with the repercussions of overstepping her bounds at the school, which resulted in the death of one of her friends, and is trying to find the balance between what she can change and what she should. As so often in real life, most of Patricia and Laurence’s problems stem from miscommunication. Because of their own insecurities and their difficulties in seeing the bigger picture, it takes them a long time to understand their feelings for each other, and then events conspire to drive them apart, and succeed in doing so because of poor communication.
Both characters’ failings are instantly recognisable as those of young adults going out into the world for the first time and discovering that their actions have consequences beyond themselves. Because of this, and because the characters recognise and learn from their mistakes, Patricia and Laurence always remain sympathetic. Their happy ending is hard earned through mutual sacrifice but well deserved.
All The Birds In The Sky is a glorious mix of fantasy and science fiction. Patricia’s story is fantastical, drawing as it does from everything from fairy tales and folklore with its magical talking animals, works of modern slipstream Fantasy like John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) in the way it mixes fantastical elements with the real world, and the Harry Potter books in its depiction of a magical school for witches and wizards. Laurence’s story is pure science fiction, as he works to build a sentient artificial intelligence in his closet as a child and graduates to building a machine that controls gravity with the hopes of opening up a wormhole so that humanity can escape the catastrophic effects of poisoning its own planet. Anders even name-checks Robert Heinlein’s classic juvenile science fiction novel Have Spacesuit – Will Travel (1958), which Laurence borrows from a rocket scientist when he runs away to watch the launch.
While All The Birds In The Sky posits a frightening near future ravaged by pollution and climate change, it also points the way forward for humanity, a reconciliation with the natural world through a more profound understanding of our place in it.